Hindsight is ‘2020’: The Brand Master Class

When you know what your brand stands for in the best of times, you are able to apply that confidence and steadfastness in the worst of times."

By Erin Weinberg

In the not too distant future, a marketing and communications professor will stand before a classroom of eager students (post-social distancing, of course) and teach a master class on how brands navigated 2020.  S/he will talk about the unprecedented confluence of social, political, and public health events that upended all existing plans brands had in place, forcing them to rethink a path forward without being able to see around the corner.

For brands, 2020 has been a cross-roads moment. Those that already knew who they were moved decisively and brought stakeholders with them. In the halls of these brands, I suspect there was a sense of urgency, the need for action and a recognition of the importance accountability, because when you know what your brand stands for in the best of times, you are able to apply that confidence and steadfastness in the worst of times. We saw other brands lose valuable time, not do enough, or worse, remain silent.

So what can we learn from the brand experience in 2020? If I were to stand before those eager marketing and communications students who will be the CMOs and CCOs of the future, I would share some simple, best practices that are relevant no matter what the circumstance:

Be True to Your Brand.
Consumers see right through brands that are quick to jump on the bandwagon and don’t have a history and authentic passion for an issue. No one doubted the motivation when Ben and Jerry’s made a strong statement following George Floyd’s death, but other brands with no such history were thrust into situations where consumers were demanding to know where they stood.  Brands need to carefully think about how to insert themselves as actions and statements can come across as hollow if they are not consistent with how a brand or company has conducted itself in the past. If a brand decides not to participate,  silence can draw an unwanted spotlight as customers, employees and other stakeholders search for answers.  Even for brands that have been historically reluctant to engage on social issues, the luxury of staying on the sidelines is gone. The question for all brands becomes, to what extent, and how, do they wish to engage?

Stand for Something.
Many brands have long-term commitments to causes they care deeply about. In some cases, it can be completely relevant to raise awareness of these commitments and the values they are steeped in. But brands still need to go beyond the one-time statement when reacting to current events. Don’t be afraid to share the challenges, even more than the celebrations. Communicate your plan and report progress at key intervals.

Own Your Past.
Don’t ignore your brand’s past mistakes. Be candid about them, accept responsibility, move forward with an acknowledgement of how today is different, and identify what steps are being taken to avoid backtracking. An interesting example from a media organization is the open and honest letter that National Geographic’s Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg shared examining the organization’s history when publishing “The Race Issue” in 2018.  NatGeo acknowledged their coverage in the past was in fact racist – not a proud moment for the magazine by any means, but a powerful one about moving forward and righting a wrong.

Survey the Field Around Your Brand.
Taking a stand on a specific topic should be consistent with all areas of your business. Does your leadership and Board of Directors reflect what you are saying?  Are the companies you partner with aligned with your commitment? And, where is your brand appearing? The growing number of companies taking a pause from advertising on social media, and primarily on Facebook, is a great example of brands using their spending power to hold platforms accountable and ensure that what is important to the brand is pulled through all areas of it’s business.

Commit to Action.
If you aren’t where you want to be as an organization, commit to getting there with a measurable action plan. Determine what progress can be made near-term and set additional milestones to hold everyone accountable.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible today to write the final exam for this master class as we have a long way to go with unrest and uncertainty ahead.  But we are already getting clues as to what works – and, as important, what doesn’t.